Jonathan Sherwood. Under the Graying Sea.


‘Under the Graying Sea’ appeared in Asimovs, February 2006. The story is copyright Jonathan Sherwood, and appears here with his kind permission.


Ignition.

Tessa’s head snapped back into its cradle and her lips slid away from her teeth. The shock slapped the fog off the inside of her helmet and misted her face. Behind her, Loránd groaned as he pressed into his own seat.

And behind him, past two hundred pounding meters of metal and deuterium, the largest protospike engine in history opened its mouth and screamed at the stars.

Nothing went wrong. Not at first.

The holodisplay in the side of her faceplate started running the digits. Four gees. Five. The image of the interior of the cabin blurred under the hammering vibration. Joints in her hips and spine cracked as they were pressed flat. The respirator, locked in her jaw, swelled, forcing oxygen down her throat to keep her lungs from collapsing. Her suit constricted. Her knuckles popped. She was sure she was probably yelling but her eardrums had been shut down. The helmet battered her temples. Eight gees. Nine.

The blur of the cabin turned to a haze as her eyes deformed under their own weight. The tiny lasers of the holodisplay lit automatically, drawing images directly onto her retina; the digits of the gee counter and the stark white curve of the moon. The crescent grew as they plunged from their high lunar orbit to hurtle past by less than 400 meters as a brilliant streak of burning metal. Halfway around, pulling out of the slingshot, the mad rush would end. She watched the image in her eye. Watched the brilliant white crest glow brighter and whiter against the black emptiness. The black and white, and halfway around the moon, the unbearably sallow gray.

Carbon spokes, pinioned into her ribs, kept them from splitting. Microwaves impelled blood through capillaries. Her eyes rolled back white and she gagged as always as she gave up control to the respirator.

And still the protospike screamed.

Eleven. Twelve.

She knew that her parents, like half the world, would be watching—standing out on porches, pausing on the fields of late-night ball games and leaning out moving cars to watch the brilliant glare of the protospike awaken like a new star in the sky and dive into the moon. It had happened every thirty days for the past eighty years as the crews built the stellar bridge. Every thirty days.

But still, everyone paused.

She’d been three when she first saw it. Once, when she used to sleep on her father’s lap as the riding mower rattled up and down the smooth hills of their lawn, he stopped and pinched the gas tube until the engine sputtered to quiet. “Would you like a star?” he whispered into her hair. With the back of grass-stained fingernails he slid her hair behind an ear and gently nudged her awake. The sky was a cloudless, near-black blue, bright only where the sun had just dipped below the distant line of maples. The silver arc of the moon floated just above the dwindling violet and purples. Crickets were waking. A hiss rippled through the fields around the house.

“Tess?” he whispered again, his soft voice rising out of the breeze. “How would you like a star?” She barely opened an eye and didn’t move from where she’d sweated into his shirt. He reached out his arm, making sure she was watching, and stretched out his fingers as if wrapping them around the moon. The breeze ebbed and the road on the other side of the old maples was quiet. She sat upright, squinting at his outstretched hand, to his square features pulled into deep thought, and back out to his hand. She didn’t notice him eyeing his watch.

“Presto-mesto,” he said, and a white star, framed perfectly in the moon’s crescent, flickered to life. Tessa breathed through her mouth. It moved, slowly at first, but more and more quickly toward the edge of the moon. Her face was cooling quickly away from his chest. “Should we name it after you?” He picked away a few strands stuck to her cheek. Her eyes were transfixed. “I think we should.” They watched as it approached the limb of the crescent, suspended in the thick smell of cut grass, gasoline, and his old shirt. “I’ll tuck it behind the moon for now,” he said, reaching up and brushing a hand along the sky. The star slipped around the edge of the moon and vanished.

Her breath barely passed her open lips.

The evening kept still.

Long moments lingered before she turned to him, brow twitching slightly, eyes searching his face. The breeze had not returned, and the crickets seemed to silence. They looked at each other in the hush.

Long after she went to bed and watched the moon ease itself down the panes in her window, the fields were still quiet.

#

For four years the scene was repeated every thirty days, whether he halted her and her mother in the middle of a grocery parking lot or woke her in the middle of the night to stick their heads out under the window sash. It took those four years before classmates laughed at her for believing it was named for her. She didn’t say anything to her father, but he noticed one night she was watching him instead of her star. Neither of them mentioned it when the next thirtieth day came and passed unnoticed.

Tessa’s limbs ached as her flesh was ground against bones. A red warning light flashed on her retina, then a diagnostic schematic, a flurry of code lines as the CV attempted reroutes, and a flash of all-clear green before her vision was back to the onrushing limb of the moon and the green digits counting seventeen. Eighteen.

She’d written one of her first book reports about the bridge. She’d laid out her ebook on her windowsill one evening and downloaded page after page about its creation, including the famous, century-old video from Tokyo. Out of a scruffy lab of bare wires and tubes, a nervous, grinning scientist tossed a grapefruit into a small metal ring, and without so much as a flash or a blink, the grapefruit was suddenly dropping out of a second ring at the end of the table. Overnight, conversations turned to uses for bridges. Walk from your parlor in Louisiana to your mother’s kitchen in Scotland. Ride your bicycle to a business meeting across the Pacific. Airline stocks plummeted but eased back once sobriety settled in: The tiny, two-meter wormhole had used more power in four seconds than all of Tokyo could in a day, and no amount of ingenuity seemed able to bring Mom’s kitchen within walking distance. “The first wormhole,” she had scrawled under the twilight stars, “was stuck.”

Twenty-one gees. Twenty-two. Their tiny compartment, long ago sardonically nicknamed a “Concussion Vehicle” by its pilots, was housed in a massive electromagnetic sheath that pulled at the slight attraction of water molecules in their bodies to counteract some of the acceleration. Not enough, Tessa thought. The spokes lifted her ribs for another breath, dragging with them tendon and cartilage twenty times their normal weight. The view of the looming lunar surface suddenly rolled as the protospike twisted, corrected course and twisted again. The magnetosheath stabilized different tissue with different force; blood, and neural tissue more, fat and bone much less. The protospikes could supposedly deliver up to forty-eight gees of acceleration once they spun up to full bore, but the hardest anyone had ever been pushed yet was twenty-four-point-one. Tessa’s last four launches had all been about twenty-four-point-one, with every launch a thousandth of a gee faster than the last. The far side of the bridge was always accelerating away, and they were always pushing harder to catch up. Each launch just a little faster. Her blind eyes widened as the counter moved past twenty-four. And to twenty-five. The digits switched to red. The impellers pushed against blood. Her larynx vibrated under the respirator as she watched the impossible; twenty-six.

A bridge was cheaper than only one kind of transportation—stellar. Though complex, arduous, and outlandishly expensive, the bridge held out a promise to humankind that no one had thought possible. To build a bridge to the stars, one ring would reside near Earth, while the other ring would be placed at the destination. Getting the second ring to that destination so many light years away, however, was the challenge. The scientific world struggled, hoping for another miracle, but none came. The second ring would have to be pushed to a nearby star by simple, old-fashioned, mass-rejection rockets. Getting it there would take two hundred years, but humanity’s expedition to the stars would begin.

In any other decade the bridge would have remained only a dream, but the world was at peace, economies were expanding, and generosity was chic. They built it in twelve years. Economies contracted, but the money flowed. Other sciences were curtailed, but they built the rings. One orbited the Moon and the other was sent toward the nearby dwarf star, Lalande 21185. Lalande had a halo rich in complex elements—a perfect first stop on the journey into the stars. Every thirty days the bridge would be opened to refuel the far ring’s engines and perform maintenance. The world watched the launch of the far ring, nicknamed Betty, already seen as a symbol of better days as living conditions in smaller countries began to dip and petty squabbles grew to small conflicts. The golden age collapsed and it was back to a world in flux.

At twenty-eight gees, Tessa’s fear became panic. Her heart raced but the respirator kept her breathing even. She felt as if she was suffocating. She thought her skin would split where the helmet was hitting her and drag itself down either side of her face. Her shoulders dislocated one after the other and despite the impellers moving her blood, her vision was tunneling, the distorted image of the lunar surface tearing by as they dropped through their perigee. Only seconds now… Twenty-nine. The spokes lifted her ribs for another breath.

“Why do they have to send people?” her father had asked when she had shown him the eyelets drilled into her ribs. His first trip off-world. Just to see her. “Can’t they automate it somehow?”

He’d tried to hide it, but she’d caught the look on his face. She’d regretted showing him then. It was one thing to hear about the eyelet implants, the nauseating neuro-mineral injections and other procedures pilots had to undergo to survive a launch. Quite another to see fifty-six holes perforating your daughter’s chest. She tucked her shirt in without looking up.

“They do automate it, most of it at least. But it’s too important not to back it up with a human presence. The simplest programming error and it’s all over.” They sat alone at a small table in the dark wood-paneled pilot’s lounge, looking out a wide window into the gridwork of the orbiting Darkside Station. The moon’s surface moved perceptibly below; the tourists’ observation deck above but far away enough for them to feel private. And the near end of the stellar bridge, the thirty-meter ring called Alice, lit up by a plethora of floodlights and flashers. She watched his face flicker with their pulses, cheeks and wrinkles sitting younger in the zero gravity. A gentle chime sounded in the lounge.

“Does that mean their launch has started?”

Tessa nodded. “They’ll be here in eighteen minutes. I hate to say it, but it’s not a lot to see. About a half second before they get here, the magnetic cocoon jettisons the concussion vehicle from the protospike, sending it through those rings.” She pointed out the window and he leaned against the glass to see. “Those rings magnetically guide the CV during the last second so it hits Alice dead-center. But the CV is moving so fast that you probably won’t even see it. It’ll go through to the other ring, Betty, and come to a dead stop. They send the gamma burst directly after it and that gets absorbed by Betty’s collector to recharge her engines. Then we do maintenance.”

“How can you handle a dead stop?” he said, still looking out the window.

“It’s not really a dead stop at all. Really just the opposite. Betty’s been accelerating away toward Lalande for eighty years now and she’s reaching relativistic speeds. She’s just over five percent light speed now, so when we go through, we’re actually being instantly accelerated to her fifteen thousand kilometers per second, and the energy to do that has to come from somewhere. Most of it turns into a physical drag on Betty, and the rest of it comes out of… us.” She realized she was unconsciously fingering an eyelet. “Our body temperatures drop to near absolute zero instantly. Most of the hardware in the CVs are microwave heaters. We’re sort of cooked back to normal in about six millionths of a second.”

She’d trailed off near the end. The same pang of wishing she hadn’t told him the details.

“That’s why we go through the launch,” she continued, quieter. “We have to do everything we can to minimize the drag on Betty. The faster we go into Alice, the less drag on Betty as she yanks us up to speed.”

She played with the sealed straw in the Chardonnay bonded to the table. The lounge was perfectly quiet, lit only by small table lamps and the flashers from outside the window. It was a long moment before she realized he was looking at her in the reflection. Had been.

“They want to name the town park after you,” he said when their eyes met in the glass. He smiled and focused his gaze outward. Distant lights reflected under his brows. “Tessa J. Bruncsak Park.” He smiled wider, turning toward her. “Did I tell you I got asked for my autograph again? At the gas station. And your mother’s Bible study group bought her a telescope but I’m having a terrible time trying to put the thing together.”

Sipping at her straw, Tessa just smiled. Another chime sounded and his eyebrows raised a bit.

“They’re approaching perigee. They’ll be here in about a minute.”

“Does it hurt?”

The question caught her off guard, and though he’d asked it, it seemed to catch him off guard too. He seemed flustered.

“Yeah. Yeah, it does, sort of. But it’s not so bad. It’s only eighteen minutes, and it goes by quicker than you’d think.” She watched him across the table, nodding slowly. Trying to convince himself.

“You couldn’t tell when you saw my quarters,” she said, “but I get a fantastic view out my window. Every few days I wake up to have the entire Earth lighting up my room. It’s nothing like moonlight. It’s warm. Palpable, even. I can usually tell where Ohio is. I lie there and stare at the whole globe, and do you know what I’m thinking? That I’m so proud of us. I’m so proud of us as a species. We may be absorbed in our regular lives like any other animal, but we came together, just once, just this one time, and we did something impossible. We stepped beyond every expectation we ever, ever had of ourselves. And I lie there thinking, ‘Here I am. Part of this one, giant, unimaginable baby step.’ It’s worth everything I can give it.”

“But there’s still something bothering you.”

Her eyes widened almost imperceptibly.

“I’m your dad,” he pretended to shrug it off. “I can tell things.”

Tessa scratched the side of her nose, looked at her drink and out the window before answering.

“It’s the other side,” she said directly to him, feeling as if she’d slipped from stellar pilot to little girl cringing from the darkness in the closet.

“It’s not the acceleration or all the things that might go wrong. It’s the sky out there. It’s not black. It’s gray.”

His brow furrowed.

“When you go through that bridge and it closes behind you, you are utterly… you are unchangeably alone. Around here space is black because you’ve got the Sun and the Moon and Earth all radiating light, and space is just black in comparison. You can see stars of course, but it’s nothing like out there. Out there you’re thirty trillion kilometers from anything. The sun is so far away you can’t tell it from any other star in the sky. And with nothing stronger than starlight around, you see more stars than you’d believe. In every direction the sky is dusted with them. And between any two stars is another and another. The longer you stay out there, the more your eyes adjust and the more you see until you can hardly distinguish them apart and before you know it, there is no more blackness, just a thin gray mist of stars in all directions. And it’s always there, always in your peripheral vision, always reminding you how unfathomably far away you are from everyone and everything. It’s like suffocating under a crushing emptiness. Like drowning, unable to get back to the real world, watching the surface recede.”

She pushed the straw around the sealed glass.

“For four hours you’re just praying that the bridge will open up the way it should and take you back. For four hours you almost can’t concentrate because you feel how horrifyingly delicate that thread is that connects you back. That thread breaks, and you drown. For four hours, you pray.”

Though it never seemed like he’d moved, she realized he was holding her hand on the table. Three gentle chimes sounded over the intercom. A brilliant orange burst as Alice spun open and a flash past the window as the concussion vehicle hurtled into the ring. Over the intercom, the fast exchange between the Darkside controllers and the pilots on the other side. The blinding glare of the gamma burst laser pumping energy into Betty’s collector. And three seconds later the bridge shut, leaving tourists on the distant observation deck still snapping pictures.

She’d watched it all reflect off his face. He hadn’t taken his eyes off her.

I am with you,” he said. “Always.”

#

In her launches she never actually saw Darkside Station, much less Alice. After lifting out of perigee, the ring would clear the lunar horizon and hit her and Loránd before she could even catch the streak on her retina. This time her eyes were rolled back into her head anyway.

The acceleration halted abruptly, throwing her head forward as the magnetosheath ejected their tiny pod and the protospike rocketed past the station. The sudden relief of pressure always made her lungs feel like bursting before the respirator equalized itself. She pulled her eyes forward and her retina was awash for half a second in the warm, fire-like glow of the wormhole before the image abruptly changed to a status grid. The heaters worked. The impellers released her eardrums and the flood of voices from Darkside Control rushed in.

“CV One this is Darkside, you are out-transit, awaiting go.”

No time to mince a syllable. Thirty-one fusion generators were exhausting themselves to keep the bridge open for its twenty-one seconds. The respirator snapped itself out of her teeth. The autopilot had already pulled their tiny pod to the edge of the ring and anchored them. Green lights fluttered across her vision. “Betty reports All Green.” Instantly her vision switched to the forward camera as she heard Loránd relay, “Confirm All Green.” The sound was not his voice just as her report wasn’t hers. Neither of their larynxes was functional. Their helmets read their lips. Tessa looked around, the forward camera spinning to match the twitches of her blind eyes. She saw Betty’s arc, so much thinner and weaker than Alice’s. Cables holding it together. Small micro-meteor holes, pointed out with flashing crosshairs and dates they were logged in by previous crews. The gallium-antimony collector, the eight ion engines with their invisible thrust, more meteorite damage then usual, but everything in order. “Betty Visual All Green,” her synthetic voice sounded immediately.

Loránd did not confirm.

“Loránd! I—Darkside, this is—”

“CV One, we’ve got his vitals,” Control cut her off. “He’s blacked out, Tess. Darkside firing,” Neither they nor Tessa could stop to check on her copilot. No abort. They could never abort.

The forward camera twitched as she watched. The gamma burst fired. Through the wormhole Darkside Station seemed a few meters away but was nearly invisible as light radiating from it was stretched and robbed of its energy, dropping down from the visible to the deep infrared. She could only make out ruddy outlines where the sun glinted off metal. By the time the gamma burst came through the bridge it was little more than a red glow warming the collector.

“Darkside. Need emergency medical ready on in-transit.”

The refueling took the final four seconds. Forty-eight percent of that energy would be used to reopen the bridge for their return journey. Forty-eight percent to open it again in thirty days for the next crew. Only four percent went into propulsion. No room for errors.

“Already in scramble, CV One. We’re reporting an acceleration anomaly.”

“Confirm, we’re—”

The gamma burst ended and lights on her retina flickered as bridge began shutdown.

“Just hang in there, Tess. Darkside out.”

Silently, the orange glow in Betty’s maw evaporated, leaving Tessa blinking at darkness before Betty’s arcing silhouette began to take shape against the countless billions of tiny, unblinking stars.

#

“Loránd!” her electronic voice rang out. “Ceevee, give me the internal camera.” Lasers played through her cornea and the image of the cabin appeared. She could hear the cam above her head hum as her eyes focused it on the seat behind her. Inside his helmet, Loránd’s eyes were closed. “Loránd!” she tried to yell, but the lipreader only sounded calm. “Ceevee, medical report on Loránd.”

“Report not yet complete.”

“Results so far.”

“Commander Loránd Delago: microfractures in left femur, right femur, left ulna—”

Loránd’s eyes fluttered, crossing occasionally and dipped back beneath his lids.

“Ceevee, give Loránd internal cam. Hey, pal, can you hear me? Loránd?” His eyes stopped fluttering as the lasers glinted off them. Another camera above her head hummed.

“What happened?” His synthetic voice was steady.

“You blacked out. Control said something went wrong with the acceleration, did you catch that?”

“No. You’ve got blood out your nose.”

Tessa’s view shifted as she looked down on herself, red streaks edging down both cheeks. Twinges of dull pain pulsed behind her eyes. She lifted her faceplate and wiped her nose with the slick plastic of her glove. Her shoulder jerked painfully back into place.

“Ceevee, full medical. Report.”

“Commander Tessa Bruncsak: microfractures in left femur, right radius, right scapula. Minor hemorrhages in all extremities. Possible major hemorrhage in upper torso. Soft tissue report in seven minutes. Commander Loránd Delago: mircrofractures in left femur, right femur, left ulna, right ulna, left radius, left tibia. Major fractures in left ulna, right ulna, left ribs four, five, and six. Minor hemorrhages in all extremities. Possible major hemorrhage in upper torso. Cyclimorph injections imminent. Soft tissue report in six minutes.”

“My rib,” came his voice. His larynx was starting to recover, as was Tessa’s natural eyesight.

“What is it?”

“It hurts. A lot.” She could see his hand moving along his side. The thick fingers of his suit prodding beneath his arm. “The spoke broke.”

“Ceevee, can you abbreviate that soft tissue report?” she asked, and twitched as the opiate needle tapped her armpit inside her suit.

“Under two minutes.”

“Don’t worry, Control said they knew what went wrong and would have full medical teams ready as soon as we in-transit.” They both knew the procedure. There was no way Control would pull a team back from the other side. If something was wrong, it was the team’s job to fix it. Scamper away from the problem and they might never reconnect with Betty. Painkiller warmth spread from her armpit. “Ceevee, what was the acceleration malfunction? Check your logs and everything Darkside beamed us.”

“No malfunctions recorded.”

Though they were not facing each other, they read each other’s expressions.

“What do you mean, ‘no malfunctions’?” said Loránd. “How many gees did we just pull?”

“Thirty-two-point-eight,” came the ship’s voice.

Thirty-two-point-eight. Nearly eight gees harder than anyone had pulled before. It was several seconds before Tessa was able to respond.

“Darkside said ‘anomaly,’ not ‘malfunction’. What…. Ceevee, what was the anomaly?”

“Darkside reports link requiring acceleration of thirty-two-point-eight gravities.”

“Well, no kidding.”

“Soft tissue report complete,” chimed the ship’s voice.

“Report.”

“Commander Tessa Bruncsak: minor hemorrhages in all extremities. Minor muscular damage in all extremities. minor hemorrhages in maxillary sinus and right renal cortex. No emergency medical action required. Commander Loránd Delago: minor hemorrhages in all extremities. Minor muscular damage in all extremities. Major hemorrhage in chest cavity. Left rib six penetrating lung, diaphragm, pancreas, depressing kidney. Continuing blood loss. Emergency medical action required.”

The lasers played Loránd’s silent expression across her retina.

“Ceevee, what medical action is required?”

“Transfusion and surgery.”

Tessa’s lips moved, but the lip-reader could not discern the intended word.

“Ceevee,” said Loránd, his real voice starting to crack through, “report prognosis without treatment.”

“Death from blood loss in forty to eighty minutes.”

“I can make the impellers reduce the hemorrhaging. I can set them to push most of the blood in the area away from your rib.”

“There aren’t enough. Only a couple dozen impellers in the seat that can reach. Too many arteries.”

“I can vary the impellers. I can make them back up blood flow in one artery and flip to another and back it up some while blood starts moving again in the first. They should be able to alternate pretty quickly if you don’t move too much. Ceevee, can the impellers move blood in the damaged arteries at least twice as fast as it’s currently flowing through Lorand’s diaphragm?”

“Impellers can operate at two-point-two times current flow.”

“What about organ damage from lack of blood?”

“Pancreatic necrosis likely in two-hundred to four-hundred-twenty minutes.”

“Forget about my pancreas.”

“If this works, the capillaries will still leak a lot, but it should keep you alive until we can get back. Or nearly so.”

“Nearly so.” The voice simulator couldn’t reconstruct sarcasm. Or resignation.

“If you don’t make it, I’ll pull the heaters in your suit and the cabin. I can even use some of the CV’s coolant to chill you. They’ll be able to revive you. Okay? Ceevee, give me the impeller schematics.”

Tessa’s eyes flooded with bright lines, straight yellow streaks where the microwaves in Loránd’s couch could push; red and blue curves where the edges of his diaphragm, rib and pancreas intersected. A cursor followed the movements of her hands as she set about moving the yellow streaks about.

“You okay?”

“I can feel it every time you switch them on.” His voice worked against the crippled lung.

“Sorry. Does it hurt?”

“Yup.”

“I think I can make this work. At least for a while.”

“Hey Tess? I’m starting to shake.”

She didn’t answer for a long minute. “Yeah, well, me too.” Despite the open faceplate, she felt how humid her breath made the inside of the helmet. She had to keep stopping to breathe and think of open spaces. Of trees and cut grass. The legs of her suit automatically constricted. Ceevee must have detected the onset of shock.

“I didn’t make a big deal out of saying goodbye to Marith,” he said. “I don’t like making a big deal of it because I don’t want her to think I’m worried. She’d get more nervous if she thought I was. I just gave her a peck and told her I’d be back for dinner.”

“You’ll be back.” She nudged another yellow streak and could see him twitch.

“We’re trying to get pregnant again.”

She closed her eyes, teeth pressed tight. Open spaces and the sound of a breeze on the treetops. Over and over. The cursor was shaking with her hand.

“Tess? Tessa?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want to die out here. I’m not afraid of dying but I don’t want to die way out here. I don’t want to die in this. Promise me, will you? Promise me you’ll get me back. If I gotta die I don’t want it to be out here. Promise me Tess.”

The thought crowded into her head. The emptiness. The gray. “I promise, pal.”

“For real.”

“I promise for real.”

#

For a long time, Tessa worked the impellers in silence. She used every impeller in Loránd’s seat to hold back the blood flow, and though it wasn’t perfect, it was working better than she’d expected. The pain in her head relaxed to a dull ache, but she was growing aware of pangs in her legs, pelvis and back. “I’ve been thinking, the only reason the linkup system would demand that we pull thirty-two-point-eight gees would be if our heaters couldn’t reheat us
properly, or—”

“Or Betty is moving a hell of lot faster than she should be.”

“Or Betty is moving a hell of a lot faster than she should be,” she repeated, slowly. “When we first came out-transit, I noticed way more micrometeor hits than usual in Betty’s frame. Ceevee, shut down my holodisplay.”

With a flicker, the outline of Loránd’s diaphragm disappeared. Blinking hard several times, she made out the instrument lights first, then the dimmer colors of her suit, her reflection in the canopy above, and finally the giant curving stretch of Betty’s rim arcing away out of the CV’s floods. Ceevee had docked them as usual against Betty’s side, giving them a tremendous view out the canopy. The far side of the ring’s delicate, spider-web-like network of cables stood out black; dark against the mist of stars beyond. She switched on the holodisplay again to highlight the new pockmarks that tiny bits of dust and interstellar debris had made in Betty’s thin skin in the last thirty days. Particularly in the series of linkage terminals that ensured a proper connection home.

“I’m going out, Lor. I have to start repairing some of Betty’s acne and make sure the linking system is All Green like Ceevee says. Okay?”

“Don’t leave.”

“I’ve gotta go, pal, you know that. I’m going to make sure we can get home, okay? Stay on the radio.” She spread the spoke cage, unbuckled from her seat and turned so she could see him. He was wincing. “I’m decompressing the cabin.”

The decompression was silent and only noticeable as her suit swelled slightly. She watched his face and could see him wince harder as his own suit stiffened against his broken rib. She had been on thirty-two launches with him and they’d worked well together. To have him suddenly unable to move…

The
magnetic soles of her boots clung to the rivets in Betty’s lithium skin as she stepped out of the concussion vehicle. She stood in the CV’s floodlights for a moment, the brightest object for a trillion kilometers, before clipping in her tethers and walking along the great rim. It stretched before her like a black arch; each slow, measured step throwing small shoots of pain up her legs, sounding small and echoless in her suit as the endless gray sky rose and sank around her. Beneath her. Her faceplate fogged slightly with each breath.

“Talk to me about Marith,” she said, wishing the lip-reader were still on. He didn’t need to hear the uneasiness in her real voice. “Talk to me about this baby thing.”

“We kind of just decided. I don’t know.” His voice was steadier than hers. “She grew up in a big family and always wanted like four or five kids. She said she had noisy Thanksgivings and that that was one of the best times of the year for her. Everybody around the table all talking at once.” He stopped suddenly, but continued. Tessa reached the line of link terminals a quarter up the rim and switched on her helmet lights. “I only had a brother so when I imagine a noisy Thanksgiving it sounds like chaos. But she’d talk about how everyone could somehow talk all at the same time but keep a conversation going, and how somebody in one of the conversations was always laughing and the more she described it, the more, I don’t know, friendly it seemed.”

She shortened the tethers to hold her, kneeling, against the ring and punched in the passcode over the linkage panels. Betty’s silvery skin glinted brightly in her helmet lights as she unfolded the lids and keyboards and watched green lights appear one by one. She wanted to double-check.

“Ceevee, report on linking terminal status.”

“Linking terminals report All Green.”

“Is there enough power to re-establish the bridge?”

“There is.”

“Are the timers compensating for relativistic dilation?”

“They are.”

She stared at the bank of green lights under her helmet lights. Everything working. The link between Alice and Betty was a tenuous one; Alice had to house all the power to generate the wormhole to save precious weight on Betty. But it meant the crews couldn’t initiate the bridge from this end, and couldn’t communicate until the bridge opened. Connection relied solely on both rings’ perfectly coordinated timing.

“Is there anything at all that may interfere with a proper linkup?”

“There is not.”

She quietly let out a long breath.

“Sounds good,” he said. “At least we know we’re going home. One way or another.”

“We need to figure out why we’re going too fast.”

“The engines?”

“I can’t see how. They’re ion engines. They could never produce that much acceleration in just thirty days.” She closed the panel and extended the tethers until she stood on the outer edge of the ring, the lights of the concussion vehicle far below. She threw a glare at the stars around her.

Loránd spoke. “What if the last team’s in-transit didn’t produce the expected amount of drag?”

“Maybe,
but eight gees worth? What does that translate to in kilometers per hour? We don’t even know how fast we’re going now. We don’t even have a way to check direction. We could even be way off… Ceevee, were there any course corrections since the last team? Major ones, not corrections for micro-impacts.”

“Betty reports ninety major course corrections.”

“Holy…” Loránd.

“Ceevee, show me Lalande 21185.” An invisible laser drew crosshairs on her retina around the image of a single, dim star in the field before them. “Show me our heading.” A second crosshair came into her vision, superimposed on the first.

“Maybe one of the engines is pushing it off kilter.”

“That wouldn’t explain our speed,” she replied, almost to herself. She stared at the starfield, at Lalande with it’s glowing crosshairs, at the stars around it, one by one. All of them hundreds of times more distant. Looking at each with suspicion. So distant. So alone. The stars surrounded her. Waiting.

“Ceevee, show me the nearest star on our lateral—the nearest one perpendicular to our line of travel.”

“Up and to your left. Wolf 359.”

She turned and saw another crosshair glowing around another nondescript star.

“Ceevee, check the star’s position against where it’s predicted to be in relation to Betty.”

“What’s up Tess?”

“Hang on. Ceevee, you got that?”

“Calculating… Wolf 359 is 0.0023 degrees ahead of predicted position.”

“Lor! We’re drifting sideways! There’s a gravity source out here. There’s got to be some huge mass pulling us off course.” She looked around at the silent stars, their billion trillion silent numbers. “Ceevee, show me the course corrections. Graph them over time.” A grid with fluttering dots superimposed itself over her vision. The dots started infrequently but appeared more and more clustered toward the edge of the graph.

“Whoa,” said Loránd.

“You seeing this?” She looked down to him.

“They’re getting more frequent. Looks exponential.”

“We’re bearing down on top of it,” she whispered. “Something huge. Planetoid or brown dwarf. Bigger maybe.”

“Tess, the last correction was only four minutes before we out-transited. The next one will be probably be any second now.”

“Ceevee, alert when Betty corrects course.”

The ship confirmed. Tessa watched the stars through the grid hovering in her vision.

“Ceevee, can you extrapolate from course corrections to estimate the amount of mass needed to drag Betty into current course?”

“No. Distance to gravity source unknown.”

“If it’s been pulling us off course for thirty days and we haven’t hit it yet, we know the lower limit. What’s that?”

“Zero-point-two solar masses,” said the ship. “Assuming imminent impact.”

Though he didn’t say anything, Tessa knew Loránd was also staring at the starfield ahead. Nothing but the gray dust.

“Betty initiating course correction,” Ceevee suddenly announced.

“Ceevee, override course correction!” shot Tessa.

“Course alterations require—”

“Lor! Back me up. Confirm the override.”

“Tess, we’re not supposed—”

“Lor! Override it!”

“Ceevee, I concur. Override Betty course correction.”

Ceevee confirmed. For several seconds neither of them said anything. The ion engines’ push was so light they couldn’t feel anything, but within half a minute a small yellow warning light began blinking in both their helmets.

“Tess?”

“Ceevee, show me Lalande 21185.” A crosshair fluttered to life. “Show me current heading.” A second crosshair. Barely to the right of the first. “Ceevee, use spectrometer to scan in a straight line from Lalande 21185 to current heading and continue past heading for five degrees. Report any sudden Doppler shifts in starlight.”

“Report ready in four minutes.”

“Tess, what are you doing? You’re letting us drift off course.”

“We’re already off course—way off course. We’ve been curving for days. The course corrections are just reorienting us back toward Lalande, not making up for the curve; they’re not compensating for the sideways drift at all and we’re not going to know how far we’ve drifted or how much farther we’re going to drift until we find out how big that mass is.” She was kneeling at the linkage terminals again, tethers tight, watching the computers countdown the seconds until they’d anchor Alice’s long reach again. Loránd coughed. A short, wet cough.

“Ceevee,” his voice was strained, “clear my faceplate.”

“You okay?” She leaned over the terminals, looking down into the CV’s floods.

“Breaths are just hurting. Thank god for zero-gee or my suit legs would be full of blood. Nice job with the impellers. I’m lasting longer than Ceevee said.” Tessa looked at the chronometer on the terminal. They’d been out-transit for an hour and twenty-one minutes.

“Spectrometer report ready.”

“Report.”

“Fast Doppler shift patterns detected.” A crosshair appeared further to the right of Lalande and their heading. “Gravitational lensing likely. Necessary mass; eighteen-point-seven solar masses.”

Tessa’s fingers gripped Betty’s metal as she stared at the crosshairs. The air in her helmet began to feel thick and inadequate at the same time. Eighteen-point-seven solar masses. A black hole. A singularity.

“Tessa, I have to get out of here. I have to see Marith.”

She looked down at the CV, saw the crystallized blood from her nose on the back of her glove. Eighteen-point-seven… drifting invisibly across their path. Eighteen-point-seven solar masses.

“I have to get back!” he yelled. She could hear his sounds as he thrashed about inside his helmet. Animal sounds.

“Stop it!” she shot back at him. Louder than she meant to. “We’ll get back. That’s not a problem. When the bridge opens we go back and tell them what’s going on. They’ll send a team through, or something, a whole protospike maybe to push Betty out of harm’s way. They’ll open it in—” she glanced at the linkage chronometer “—two hours and forty minutes. Just hold on.” His cough sounded in stereo in her ears, but he was calming himself. Muttering military relaxation mantras.

“Ceevee, from the Doppler shift, estimate our speed. How much time do we have before we reach the mass?”

“Blue-shift estimation at seventeen thousand kilometers per second. Tidal force threshold approached in two hours fifty-four minutes.”

She checked the chronometer again. Two hours and forty minutes until transit. Her lips moved several times but didn’t form words. Fourteen minutes. They’d make it home fourteen minutes before the gravity tore Betty apart. Fourteen minutes to scramble some kind of team, come back and push Betty out of harm’s way.

“That gives us what?” said Loránd. “Thirteen, fourteen minutes? Talk about cutting it close.” He was trying to sound flippant, trying to negate his panic, but his breaths were short and uneven.

Fourteen minutes. She looked at the linkage terminals before her. It could be done. How quickly could Darkside assemble a team? No time for a proper protospike launch—but they wouldn’t need one. The drag on Betty would actually help. Five, maybe six minutes if alert crews were ready. That left eight minutes for them to use whatever heavy-lift thrusters they could pull through. If they could bring a whole protospike through in time, it would have power enough to shift Betty. At seventeen thousand kilometers per second, even a moderate nudge would make a huge difference. It could work. They’d also need to recharge Betty again and Tessa wasn’t sure the Darkside generators could rev up enough to fire another gamma burst in just five minutes. Again, it would be a mad scramble on Darkside, but it could work.

She started reprogramming the timers, deleting “thirty days” and typing the digits for the scant five minutes—

No, wait.

Her gloves hovered over the blinking terminal.

“Lor,” she said. So expressionless it could have been her electronic voice.

“I’m here.”

“We can’t open the bridge.”

“What? I’ve got All Green across the board. Even—”

“Lor,” she said harder. “We can’t let it. The gravity. We don’t feel it because we’re freefalling toward it, but if we open a wormhole back to Darkside….”

Gravity. The pull of eighteen-point-seven solar masses would travel right through the bridge. Radiate out of Alice. Darkside would probably survive, but larger masses, like the Moon, like Earth, what would happen? Twenty-one seconds of unnaturally bent space rippling out of Darkside at the speed of light… When they had out-transited there was probably some gravitational effect felt even then, though it would be a long time before anyone understood why. But they were falling toward the mass at almost twenty thousand kilometers per second, and the gravity’s strength would rise exponentially. In the four hours between transits it would be hundreds of times stronger. How much damage would eighteen-point-seven solar masses do in twenty-one seconds? Earthquakes? Tsunamis? How many would die?

Neither of them spoke, but Loránd’s staccato breathing sounded close in her ears. For the barest of seconds her vision wavered as she comprehended —felt— the emptiness around them. Felt the trillions of kilometers of freezing nothingness between them and home. She thought of her dad, sitting in the pilot’s lounge, of watching his face when she said, “utterly, unchangeably, alone.” Even with eyes closed, she could feel the sky around her getting grayer and grayer, as more stars quietly filled in the back rows to watch.

“Tess?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re the physics guru,” he said. “Get us back.” And then, quieter, “You gotta get us back.”

She paid out the tethers and walked a few meters to the set of propulsion terminals. She knew he could see her in the floods. She studied the terminals, the full batteries, started running figures in her head. The weight of the ring. Reaction masses. Engine thrusts.

“Ceevee,” she said, “shut down all of Betty’s engines. Loránd, confirm.”

He didn’t question. “Ceevee, shut down Betty’s engines.”

For the first time in eighty years the terminals showed the engines shut down. Loránd coughed, and again asked Ceevee to clear his faceplate. She was glad she couldn’t see him past the floods.

“Hey Tess? Tess, I can’t stop shaking.”

“You were talking about Thanksgiving before. They don’t celebrate that in Brazil. Where’d you grow up?”

“I grew up in Campinas but my family moved to California when I was ten. Marith was born in California too, but we didn’t meet until Darkside. She’s just about done with her doctorate, did you know that? Less than a year now, with honors, too. We’ve been thinking about renting a place on Luna to start a family until my tour here is over. Then I think we both want to back to Cali. Growing up on the moon would be too lonely for a kid.”

He talked as she worked. She took an exacting inventory of everything Betty had on her; everything from the power of individual engines to the mass of her rivets.

When she’d escorted her father through the corridors of Darkside at the end of his trip, he bumped along in the way newcomers to zero-G always did. She helped to steady him as she drifted, easily, needing only occasional brushes with the corridor’s rungs to move herself. She guided him toward the shuttle port, her free hand holding his small bag of belongings. “Your mother was right,” he chuckled as he reached both hands out toward an approaching wall. “She would have hated floating around like this.” Tessa pushed gently and eased him through a circular door.

He’d watched her on a transit. She’d had him in the back of her mind the whole time she’d been away on Betty. It seemed an easy transit that time; seemed warm instead of cold. Not so far away. After the perfunctory in-transit medical exam she found him in the waiting room. He was smiling but she could tell he was nervous and had probably had more than one drink in the pilot’s lounge during her four-hour absence. He never mentioned it though.

When they’d floated into the docking hall, it bustled with people prepping the shuttle. She handed her father’s bag to a nearby worker, who double-taked at her before stiffening and yelling, “Pilot Commander on deck!” Three dozen activities came to a halt as men and women of all ages and ranks suddenly anchored themselves and threw sharp hands to their foreheads. Her father looked around for several seconds before realizing that Tessa was the only one standing casually. A smile crept into the side of his mouth. “As you were,” she said, quietly but directly. The bustle instantly resumed. He looked from her to the dock loaders and back to her, shaking his head with a widening grin. She hugged him, finding that for no reason at all she still only came up to his shoulders in zero-G. As he turned away toward the shuttle hatch, he threw her a quick look of high eyebrows, mouthed, “Wow,” and fumbled his way into the port. She stayed to watch until the shuttle gracefully broke orbit.

Something was wrong.

She looked down at the propulsion terminals as they finished their inventory. Everything on Betty was functioning normally. But something had….

Loránd had stopped talking.

“Lor?” she whispered. Her tongue moved to form his name again, but she couldn’t say it. She tightened her jaw and whispered, “Ceevee, give me internal cam.” The cabin sprang to view. Rotated as her eyes moved. Loránd was sitting, arms floating before him. Behind his faceplate, his eyes were closed. Mouth half open. Red lights blinked inside his helmet.

“Ceevee,” she whispered again, “shut down my holodisplay. Shut down all heating to Commander Delago’s suit.”

She was alone.

#

She paid out the tethers and walked around the outside of the ring toward the CV. Soft clicks as her soles adhered to Betty’s rivets. The creaking of her suit. Breath against her faceplate. When she got to the CV, she stepped gingerly around the floodlights and saw Loránd under the canopy in the rear seat. She ordered the cabin depressurized and pulled coolant hoses out of the CV’s engine. She opened a pair of valves on the chest of his suit and jerked when a mist of air sprayed out and crystallized. The crystals were red. She twisted the hoses hard into the valves, tugging his limp body as she did. His arms seem to wave her off. “Ceevee, reroute your port engine coolant to bypass engine completely.” She stopped as her voice cracked. “Run the coolant to cooling fins only, can you do that?” Ceevee confirmed, Loránd’s suit suddenly swelled, and coolant flooded his helmet, bubbling into his mouth. It would cause complete chemical burns and he’d be blind when resuscitated. She settled his drifting arms into his lap. The coolant pulsed in them.

The canopy closed as she stood again on the ring. She made sure her boots were secure before filling her lungs and screaming inside her helmet until her ears rang.

The stars looked on quietly.

She sniffed and switched Ceevee’s microphone back on. “Ceevee, how long until link-up?”

“One hour thirty-two minutes.”

“Count down time to link. Standard intervals.” She sniffed deeper and looked at the starfield ahead. “Ceevee, highlight the singularity.” A blue crosshair. Her teeth ground into themselves. “Show me a graphic of our intersection with it.” She started walking back up the ring as Ceevee displayed an image on her retina of a curving line that swung hard around a small dot before turning back and colliding with it. Betty wouldn’t hit the black hole straight on but she’d be torn apart by the gravity as they arced around it.

“Ceevee, calculate the necessary force needed to divert Betty into escape orbit around mass without incurring destruction-level tidal force.”

“Two-hundred-thousand kilonewtons.”

Tessa winced. The ion engines weren’t even close. She reached the linkage terminals, noticed the crystallized blood from her nose on her glove and scraped it off.

“Ceevee, from Doppler shift, what’s our current speed?”

“Twenty-one thousand kilometers per second.”

She looked out ahead.

“What if I swivel Betty around? What if instead of Betty facing the direction of pull, it faced away. What effect would that have on gravity radiating out of Alice on link-up?”

“Space-time curvature would travel through bridge in same measure.”

Tessa had expected as much, but she was thinking out loud. How else to stop gravity radiating through the tunnel? Sudden acceleration of Betty during transit. Abrupt and short-lived. Acceleration mimics gravity, so thrusting into the gravity well… Maybe open the bridge only a tenth of a second if she used CV’s ejection seats to fire them through at the perfect moment. She had Betty’s full batteries, engines, computers, the CV with all its equipment. A powerful thrust could stretch the wormhole itself and minimize the effect. She asked Ceevee. Only about a thirteen percent decrease.

“If we use the ion engines at their full thrust, I mean full regardless of safety limits, and add to that the CV’s engines at full, and design something to use the rest of Betty’s stored energy in a single explosive discharge, how much reduction can we get?”

“Sixteen percent reduction in gravitational transduction.”

“Come on…” she whispered. She looked down to the CV’s floods, thought of the precious energy they were wasting. “Ceevee, shut off your floodlights.” The lights winked out and the sudden darkness caught her off-guard. Betty, the CV, even her own hands became sudden silhouettes of black as the starfield all around her rushed in. Vertigo was palpable, like she was being spun. Somewhere behind her one of those tiny stars was home. “Ceevee, turn the floods back on!” she yelled, then amended with, “Just one, at a tenth brightness.” A flood flickered and complied. The stars stayed at bay.

Darkside knew something had gone wrong with her launch. If they couldn’t reconnect on schedule, maybe they’d keep trying.

“If Darkside tries to open the wormhole and we don’t respond, how long before they reset and try again?”

“Approximately thirty minutes.”

If she could just push the ring into an escape orbit, she could buy time. Then estimate when Darkside would try again and blindly time the link… how to change course without a decent engine.

“Ceevee, if I can spin Betty like a gyroscope at say twenty revolutions per second, how much resistance to orbital change does that give us, figuring how bent space will be near the singularity?”

The difference was minimal, but it was there. One of her hijacked linking computers agreed, but still nowhere near enough a change for an escape orbit. “Come on, Betty,” she whispered to the smooth metal. “You can’t die. You can not die.” Think. She factored in explosive decompression of the CV’s cabin; overheating the battery deck until they exploded and channeling the reaction through a single CV booster; she even added the push of her own body heat. The display showed a hypothetical twenty-one percent reduction.

“One hour to bridge link-up.”

She was well aware of the time. One linkage display read solely the digits 0:59:57.

“Ceevee, can you calculate how much mass on Betty is not absolutely necessary for link-up? Don’t include cables. Don’t include the computers or anything else that can be moved off the ring.”

“Calculating. Your hydration level is low. Please drink.”

Tessa drank from the nipple in her helmet, feeling the moisture across her body wick away as the suit recycled.

“Four thousand, eighty-one kilograms.”

“And the length of all of Betty’s cables, end to end?”

“Seven hundred meters.”

Slingshot. Split Betty’s mass in two. Half just Betty and half everything else, tethered together by seven hundred meters of cable. An explosive backward burst on the far end would swing Betty into a slightly different course. She saw she could detonate and channel enough force to make it work, if the cables—

The terminal showed a simple figure. The cables would snap.

She doubled them back on themselves. It would be strong enough, but too short; the necessary backward blast was more than she could create. She slammed a palm onto Betty’s skin.

“Forty-five minutes to bridge linkup.”

“Come on,” she whispered. Ahead of her, the gray sky sat cold and motionless. The blue crosshair blinked gently and fixed.

“Ceevee, since Betty essentially anchors a great space-time wrinkle, is there any way she can be used to anchor the bent space-time around a black hole?”

Ceevee didn’t know. She knew it wouldn’t. She furiously typed as fast as her gloves would allow, trying to discern if Alice could exert a drag on Betty during linkup—the drag they always fought to minimize—without fully opening the bridge. She tried a shorter version of the pendulum idea, with multiple bursts and higher revolutions building over several minutes.

“Thirty minutes to bridge linkup.”

“I know what time it is!” she yelled.

She had two screens of Betty’s schematics flitting by in front of her. Looking for anything that could bend space for a few seconds. Alice was the space-bender. Betty just anchored the bridge. She went back to the revolving pendulum idea. If she could eke out some kind of thrust from Betty, or some kind of repulsion, or something more to push Betty slightly, she could make up the difference. She couldn’t even help but figure Loránd’s kilograms in the back of her head and found some comfort that it wouldn’t come close to helping.

Ceevee’s announcement of fifteen minutes caught her off-guard. She raised her head from the terminals and tried to take deep breaths. She stared at the soft blue crosshair, trying to calm herself. The steady blue seemed to shimmer, to move.

“Ceevee,” she said, quietly, “remove the singularity crosshairs.”

The cross disappeared. For a long moment, nothing happened, then a star seemed to waver, elongate and fade. Another, right beside, shimmered, flickered. The singularity. Gravitational lensing. Horrifically beautiful. She reached out a hand.

“Presto-mesto.”

As she watched, the flickering star slowly stretched into a tiny curve, wrapped into a halo, and faded back as a curve and a point again.

Her breath suddenly misted her faceplate.

“Ceevee! I need to get out of here! I need eight thousand more kilojoules of power from somewhere! Give me something!

“Please restate query.”

Swing the pendulum, perhaps as the bridge begins to open, then shut down connection manually when it exerts drag but before it makes full connection. Detonate everything at opposite tether at the same moment. Throw Betty into—she checked the readout; 0:11:13—into a wider arc around the black hole. If it doesn’t manage full escape orbit, it might prolong the orbit and instead of transiting back when Darkside attempts a second connection—

“Ten minutes to bridge linkup.”

—use the
second transit to again produce drag. How to time so many connections? Send a message back somehow during first attempted transit. Coded in the anchoring itself. Decline the anchor in a series—0:07:24—in a series of clicks. It could work, or at least give time to retry as the first orbit decays. She looked up and no longer needed the crosshairs. A series of stars changed color and wavered before their image was stretched. Like flawed glass. Her suit was slick with sweat. She abandoned the pendulum idea. No time to string it together. Working on explosive burst of the CV and batteries. Maybe missed something.

“Five minutes to bridge linkup.”

Come on! She could feel it, like an eye, the only motion out there. Open fields and fresh cut grass. Soft summer breezes and grass-stained hands. Think!

“Ceevee—Ceevee, prepare to disengage linkage on my command.”

“Linkage disconnect requires commander confirmation.”

She pulled pliers from her belt and bent open the terminal housing. Think. Burning the lithium skin and channeling it—

“Sixty seconds to bridge reconnection. Please prepare—”

“Shut up!”

The terminal displays began switching to linkage status. Lights winked on and some of the cables moved slightly as the ring primed itself for the oncoming strain. She tore open the back of the main terminal.

“Thirty seconds to bridge reconnection.”

The pliers were tossed as the wire cutters plunged into the terminal. Think! Think of something! She wrapped its teeth around two power lines.

“Twenty seconds to—”

Induce multiple drags by—reroute—Think! Maybe it won’t radiate through! Maybe it—spin end over—

Ten.

She was crouched over, helmet resting against the terminal. Feeling the vibrations as Betty readied herself. Grass-stained fingers.

She squeezed, and felt the wires give.

“Betty reporting failed link. Retrying,” came Ceevee’s calm voice.

“Failure. Retrying…”

“Failure. Retrying…”

She didn’t move until she heard: “Link full failure. Betty shutting down.” She opened her eyes and watched the wire cutters drift gently out of her hand.

She stood slowly, making sure her boots had a good magnetic lock, facing back toward Betty’s stern. The same gray sky greeted her in every direction. Some thickness towards the Milky Way, but otherwise the unbroken mist of stars.

“Ceevee, show me Sol. Show me ‘Ohio’.”

A crosshair fluttered to life around an otherwise nondescript yellow star.

“Aim your communications array toward Sol.”

Ceevee confirmed. She stared at the tiny star. At two and a half light years away, she was seeing old light. She thought about where she was, what she was doing two and a half years ago when she was first in that light. Ceevee confirmed the array was aligned. She wanted nothing so much as to be able to wipe at her eyes.

“This is Commander Tessa Bruncsak of CV One, Mission 973. Commander Loránd Delago has died as a result of injuries sustained out-transit. By now you are already aware that the wormhole was not able to link due to a failure of Betty. We discovered that a singularity existed near Betty’s flight course. When we arrived, we discovered that we would be too near the singularity to allow Betty to open again. I disconnected Betty’s linkage. I was unsuccessful in changing Betty’s course.

“Commander Delago performed admirably despite significant injuries. His last words were of his wife, Marith.” She paused. Clenched her teeth twice.

“I anticipate intersecting the singularity in approximately ten minutes. I would like to thank all the governments who made this program possible. And I’d like to thank my mother and father for their support of my role in it.” She started clenching her teeth again.

“Ceevee, send that.”

When she turned around, the singularity was clearly visible. A simple, black disk of emptiness, surrounded by the twisting, fluttering images of contorting starlight. Her breath caught in her throat and she breathed heavily to fight
it.

“Ceevee, time to tidal threshold?” She was surprised how she almost yelled.

“Three minutes, eighteen seconds.”

Her flimsy flesh wouldn’t last even that long. The blackness grew visibly larger, looming, twisting light as she plummeted toward it. She locked her knees and squared her shoulders as the drain of the sea opened before her. Her eyes grew
wide.

“Okay,” she whispered. “Hold my hand, Dad.”

#

He was working in the garden when the call came. Tessa’s transmission.

In the long two and a half years since the bridge failure, experts from around the world had parsed the data until they’d pieced it together. They’d hoped the crew managed a radio transmission. It came the day they’d expected.

He listened to it with Tessa’s mother, sitting in their living room, the two gentlemen from the space agency playing the recording. They wanted them to hear it before it was released to the world in the morning. The collapsed star would be officially named Bruncsak-Delago. They said kind words and left politely. He went back to work in the garden.

#

Long after he went to bed and watched the moon ease itself down the panes of his window, the fields were still quiet.